As political ads abound, a push to uncloak who is behind them

Political ads paid for by nondescript organizations such as Minnesota Forward have caused some to investigate who is donating to these nonprofits – and the IRS could be helping out.

By , Staff writer

Does it seem like you're being bombarded by more political ads this midterm election season than even during the last presidential cycle? Turns out you're right – well, right on the money.

According to the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), a nonpartisan group that tracks political ads, special-interest groups have spent $39 million as of Sept. 15 on congressional campaign ads, up from $21 million to this point in 2008. Ballot-issue spending by these groups is also up – from $285.7 million at this point in 2008 to $353.4 million this year, according to Kantar Media Intelligence.

Media watchdogs across the political spectrum really sit up at the mention of growth in ads paid for by special-interest groups. Some of these groups, such as the Republican Governors Association, have names that make clear their purpose and affiliation. Others, such as Let's Get to Work, or Citizens United, are chirpy but noninformational.

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Huh, you say? So what? Well, you wouldn’t buy a can of, say, tuna fish with a blank label, says David Perlmutter, director of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “You may have freedom of speech in this country,” he says, “but you can’t hide behind a hood if you are going to enter the radio and TV marketplace of ideas.”

In this case, the “hood” has become the nonprofit organization to which special interests of all stripes may donate freely without disclosing their involvement. In general, tax-exempt groups have not been required to publicly disclose their donors.

Concern over the issue has ramped up since a January US Supreme Court ruling that corporations and individuals have equal free speech rights, though it's not clear exactly how much of the 2010 spending spree can be attributed to the justices' ruling.

The exploitation of this “nontransparency” should concern every American, says Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, an independent watchdog group. “People have a right and a need to know who is trying to influence them.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says she has noticed the uptick in anonymous ads, too. At a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters Thursday, she called anonymous campaign cash "the untold story of 2010."

So what is the average, overloaded media consumer to do when he or she sees some snappy name flash by at the end of an ad for an issue or candidate? Hit the Internet, for starters. Pull up the group’s website and assess its board members and mission statement for bias or hidden agendas. There are loads of websites with additional tools: citizen sleuths can head to the Sunlight Foundation, a group which seeks to make government transparent and accountable. Its "Follow the Unlimited Money" tracking tool can help expose contradictions between a corporation's public profile and its political donations, says Liz Bartolomeo, its communications manager.

This is the sort of thing that happened with Minnesota Forward, a group running ads in support of Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer (R). In August, users of online social media sites revealed that Target had contributed $150,000 to the group. Because Mr. Emmer opposes gay marriage, gay rights groups organized a boycott against the Minnesota-based retail giant, saying its support for Emmer and his antigay stances was at odds with the image Target tries to project.

Journalists also play a key role in digging out cozy relationships between special interests and nonprofit groups, says Mr. Perlmutter. They often have access to key figures whom they can question and in turn push the information back through their outlets.

More help with transparency may be on the way from the Internal Revenue Service, says tax specialist Steven Hoffman, formerly with the IRS. In the interest of spurring “better governance” in the tax-exempt sector, he says, the agency has expanded the tax forms, specifically Form 990, in hopes of achieving “better tax compliance.” This was done, he says, in response to congressional focus on nonprofits and notable abuses in the nonprofit world.

He suggests that anyone wishing to collect more data on certain tax-exempt groups head to GuideStar.org.

While he notes many groups have filed for extensions of their 2009 returns due to the new form requirements, ultimately the additional information – not to mention pressure on the groups – may be useful.

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